Love Contractually (China, 2017): Average is Useful

We ask a lot of questions when watching movies. Some can help us understand characters’ motivations, different ones could question where the story is going and sometimes we catch ourselves asking “When is it going to end?” We ask even more questions when analysing a movie. These usually start with “What is the function of…” and they help us understand narrative and stylistic patterns. Based on these questions I would like to find out how much can one film tell us about the contexts within it exists. I want to use a simple romantic comedy called Love Contractually to explain certain tendencies coming both from inside and outside of the film.

When it comes to using a film as a proof of a wider tradition, things get tricky. We shouldn’t think only in top-down manner. That could mean reducing entire palette of traditions and norms into few singularities we see in a movie. What we can do, and I will try my best in following this presumption, is to put Love Contractually in three different contexts using an analytical approach and a touch of hermeneutics. Starting with analysing few patterns I have noticed and then linking them to the thematic level of the film and two extrinsic traditions. Can an average movie tell us something interesting? I would argue that “average” genre film can tell us more than canonical art films because there are way more average films than masterpieces.

Love Contractually is the directorial debut of Liu Guonan (therefore, there hasn’t been established any poetic of his so far). It’s a romantic comedy starring the always wonderful Sammi Cheng and popular television performer Joseph Chang. Ye Jin (Cheng) is a CEO who wants to hire courier Xiao Bo (Chang) to be the biological father of her child. She isn’t looking for a partner, only for a worthy donor. Through the film we watch Xiao Bo pass all kinds of test that are supposed to reveal whether he is good enough candidate. As the film goes on the dynamic changes and there are emotions involved. The film is quite predictable yet entertaining. But Love Contractually deploys quite sophisticated net of unusual stylistic choices that rise from (a) thematic level of the filmic text itself, (b) wider tendency in genre of Chinese romantic comedies and (c) even wider tendencies of Chinese cinema.

To illustrate this let’s think of these contexts as a pyramid. The base of the pyramid would be Chinese cinema. Tens of thousands of films, genres and directors. The middle layer would be a specific tendency of Chinese romantic comedies. In recent years we can see one important thing in Chinese romantic films. Our heroes are rich, successful and they dress accordingly. They live in gigantic condos, drive shiny cars and work for big corporations. That would be the middle. On the top of our imaginary pyramid we have one film, Love Contractually. Every part rises from the part bellow. I will explain how in a moment.

Let’s start with the narrowest context. Love Contractually. Our protagonist, Ye Jin, suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. She needs to constantly repeat certain movements and it’s crucial for her to have everything in line – literally in line. She is a perfectionist. The film style reflects this disorder. Camera work cooperates with certain aspects of mise-en-scène to create clearly defined vertical lines.

At one point, Ye Jin is in an elevator wearing a costume with black and white lines. We can clearly see how black lines define her body and create an opposition to the white wall. The lines on her costume are also vertical. Again, an opposition to the horizontal lines on the wall. Third opposition is her costume which has straight lines but the wall has two horizontal curves. And it’s not something that happens once.

This obsession with clearly defined lines comes to play only when we see Ye Jin. When she is on the phone with her candidate there are four vertical pillars and she is standing in the middle. Her space is straight, linear and empty.

But when the film cuts to the other side the mise-en-scène is filled with junk, old motorcycles and no symmetry whatsoever. His space is supersaturated, messy.

On this level we can clearly see that her disorder defines her space, the film utilizes the mise-en-scène and camera work to reflect her mental state. Style is infected with her psychology and creates oppositions between main characters. Phenomenal work but there is more, for example quite a lot of wide shots. I would propose that many of them are there to show an expensive lifestyle.

As stated, there is a certain tendency in Chinese mainstream cinema.[1] It celebrates high-life, expensive lifestyle and corporate jobs. Hollywood has rich heroes too but it’s not usually a key element to the film narrative. In Chinese cinema becoming rich or well-paid worker is something necessary for its characters. Films like Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (2011) and Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2 (2014), Women Who Flirt (2014), My New Sassy Girl (2016) or Miss Puff (2018) create worlds when stable and high-paying job is a must. For example, at the end of Miss Puff the main character leaves his girlfriend to find a job, he drops colourful socks and striped shirts to become a black-tie manager at a corporate firm. That’s the only way to become good husband, a provider. Therefore, if we expect Ye Jin to quit her CEO position and learn that there are more important things than money with a free-spirited courier, we will be disappointed. It’s actually he who adapts to her life, not the other way around. Xiao Bo is spirited from his junk filled environment to the geometrical and clean world of Ye Jin, a world of high ceilings, big windows, expensive cars and summer mansions in France. A world where details are almost absent because the camera work makes sure we see all of that. This is the middle layer of the pyramid. Something that goes through quite a lot of Chinese romantic films, wide shots and less cutting in dialogue scenes that allow utilisation of the environment. A tendency shared by more and more films. And unlike the first one, this is not coming from the film itself but from the context within it exists. Love Contractually willingly becomes a part of this tendency inside a genre.

Some of the stylistic choices come from (a) thematic level and some from (b) wider tendency in Chinese romantic comedies. Then what is the base of our pyramid? The widest piece is Chinese (and even Hong Kong) cinema itself. These (for a western viewers) unusual stylistic choices are deeply rooted within local cinema. If we look at Chinese cinema we can clearly see that the style is more self-aware than for example the Hollywood one. Zhang Yimou, Stephen Chow, Johnnie To, Tsui Hark and even art house directors like Bi Gan.[2] In their movies we can see unusual camera angles, incredible wide shots, rapid editing, wide-angle lenses and so much more. We could say their style is in your face, more visible.

Take a look at another image from Love Contractually and the one below it from the nostalgia trip Duckweed (2017, directed by Han Han.

There is no need to use this exact camera angle. The story doesn’t require it but it happens anyway. They sacrifice the usual dynamic of an action sequence to this angle. I am not here to explain why that is but I am pointing to a certain approach to film style that is quite unique and exciting.[3] And goes from canonical films to romantic comedies like Love Contractually. It’s not all Wong Kar-Wai and Tsui Hark.

This was the last part of my imaginary contextual pyramid. My point wasn’t to reduce genres and national cinema to two or three stylistic choices but to point out, bottom-up, that we can clearly see many different traditions that are deeply rooted within themselves. Even in the most average films. My ambition was to lightly untangle them and demonstrate that even mainstream movie without “artistic ambitions” can be interesting.


[1] No, not consciously related to A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema by Francois Truffaut.

[2] I am going to use this moment to say that there is a wonderful publication The Poetics of Chinese Cinema (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), edited by Gary Bettinson and James Udden, that is well worth everyone’s attention.

[3] To get a basic idea why I would recommend starting with the work of David Bordwell and Stephen Teo.